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Central Asia: Future Relations With Washington Remain Nebulous

At the start of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, much attention was focused on the potential for an emerging strategic relationship between Washington and the Central Asian states, whose help was deemed crucial to the war on terrorism. But events seem to be outpacing diplomacy. Now that the Taliban has been routed from Kabul and Washington is actively cultivating its ties with Russia, how have prospects shifted for the U.S.-Central Asian relationship?

Prague, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Over the course of just a few weeks, the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser degree Turkmenistan have moved from the periphery of U.S. policy interests to take center stage.

Seen as a key staging point for the campaign in Afghanistan -- both military and humanitarian -- the Central Asian states seized the opportunity to try to forge new strategic alliances with Washington. Uzbekistan, in addition to opening its airspace to U.S. planes, provided an air base at Khanabad, about 150 kilometers north of the Afghan border, for the U.S. military to use in humanitarian as well as search-and-rescue missions.

But with events moving so quickly on the ground -- both in the Afghan campaign and in the U.S.-Russian rapprochement -- could the promise of a new and important relationship between the United States and Central Asia be, in effect, stillborn?

Professor John Schoeberlein, director of Harvard University's Forum for Central Asian Studies, says the quicker stability returns to Afghanistan and the quicker the U.S. and Russia succeed in establishing a qualitatively new strategic relationship, the less immediate importance will be accorded by Washington to its bilateral ties with Central Asian states.

"I think that it is quite probable that the U.S. will have a limited engagement in Central Asia over the longer term. And that's true no matter how long it takes to settle things in Afghanistan. However, if matters are relatively quickly settled there, I don't that there are any firm commitments to intensive U.S. involvement over the shorter term. And I think that the focus of U.S. foreign policy will turn to other areas, which will eclipse Central Asia most likely."

The exception could be Uzbekistan. U.S. troops are on the ground in the country and the United States has given Tashkent security guarantees that it will come to Uzbekistan's assistance if it is threatened by an outside force.

Schoeberlein notes that although the events following the 11 September attacks on the U.S. acted as a catalyst in drawing the two countries together, both sides had aimed at closer relations for a long time: "What we see in Uzbekistan now is, in a sense, a fulfillment of a process which has been under development for the last several years. From both sides, there has been an effort to develop something of a special relationship between the two countries and I expect that this relationship will continue to be in place. But the question is what the substance of it will be."

No one is quite sure how U.S.-Uzbek ties will evolve, because part of the reason the United States and Uzbekistan had been trying to improve relations was to counteract Russian influence in the region. If Washington and Moscow now begin to act as allies, would the United States defer to Russia when it comes to resolving regional issues?

According to Schoeberlein, not entirely. He says that despite the bonhomie between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush, Washington will continue to pursue its interests in Uzbekistan and other countries of the region, at least to a certain degree. Part of the reason has to do with energy resources, which first attracted Washington to the region. The United States, for instance, continues to support the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline project, which would bypass Russia in delivering Kazakh oil to Western markets.

"The U.S. interest in ensuring oil flows from the region is a long-term interest which really depends on the vagaries of the market for its short-term manifestations but will remain very much at the forefront of U.S. thinking about the region. And I don't think that they will cede a monopoly to Russia in terms of export of oil from the region. So I expect that there will be a continued interest in supporting that pipeline as long as it's economically feasible."

Ian Bremmer is director of the New York-based Eurasia Group, a consultancy organization that specializes in, among other areas, Central Asia. He agrees that strong U.S. ties with Russia will take priority for Washington over its relations with countries like Uzbekistan.

But he notes that the two sets of relations could complement each other if a multilateral framework is eventually put in place: "I think a lot of the rules are changing as the U.S.-Russia relationship has improved to the extent that it has. And to the extent that Putin and the Germans and even the Americans are now starting to talk about ways in which Russia can eventually become a part of the NATO alliance, then you can start discussing multilateral ways that the Central Asians can have their security safeguarded. And again, I think that there needs to be a new structure for NATO and I don't think that this framework has been hammered out yet. But I would think of it less in terms of U.S. troops on the ground in Uzbekistan as some kind of international multilateral guarantees for Uzbek security."

Even if the Taliban's demise proves permanent, security threats from radical groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will not entirely disappear.

As John Schoeberlein observes: "It's not clear to me at least that the only people in Afghanistan that would be ready to support radical Islamists in Central Asia are the Taliban. The Northern Alliance itself has a rather radical Islamist orientation and it's too early to tell what will happen in Afghanistan over the coming months, but it's quite possible that either we'll have considerable chaos -- a failure to consolidate a single government which controls the country in any definitive way -- or that there could be strong elements within a ruling group which still supports the radical Islamist agenda and potentially could provide the kind of support that the IMU has received in Afghanistan until now."

One country in the region which could have been expected to benefit from the current situation is Iran. Tehran, from the beginning, saw Afghanistan's Taliban regime as the enemy, so their downfall will be welcomed as good news. Iran's relations with Russia have steadily improved in recent years, and Moscow's rapprochement with Washington could bode well for some Iranian politicians' efforts to mend ties with the United States. But Bremmer says that domestic factors are likely to prevent Iran from enjoying the full fruits of its favorable geopolitical position.

"Despite the fact that the reformers in Iran would very much like to improve diplomatic relations with the United States and get rid of sanctions, the conservatives under [Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei in Iran have no such interest. They want to maintain their skin in Iran and the demographic situation is working against them. They lost their elections in June badly -- 77 percent of the population voted in favor of the reformists, yet the conservatives still run the country. So it's going to be extremely difficult for the Iranians -- given the present political makeup of that country -- to really take advantage of the geopolitical advantages that otherwise could be accrued to them. And I think that the real concern for Iran is domestic instability, as we move forward."

For now, the situation throughout the region remains highly fluid and is to a certain extent being driven by events on the ground in Afghanistan. In these circumstances, the business of predictions is a risky one indeed.